The Harebrained Retrospective, Part Six: Memories of The Melbourne Museum of Printing

In 2016 I decided that, for better or worse, I was going to print my book using letterpress. This was before I’d actually asked the question ‘is it possible to print an extended work using letterpress here in Australia?’ Of course, I was to learn that the answer is yes—but not without challenges. 

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Printing using photopolymer



One of the first practical obstacles I faced was the cost: the few letterpress studios offering classes were charging a lot for them. Considering this time- and equipment-intensive art form, that’s understandable. But another thing that held me back was that most were teaching a process that wasn’t in alignment with what I wanted to achieve. These studios employed the use of relief plates for printing: a digitally-created design is transferred to a light-sensitive photopolymer base, which is then locked onto the press. I didn’t want to mess around with computers, exposure units and bits of resin—I wanted to build my book by hand. 

I was fascinated with typesetting—a skill that was foundational to printing from the time of Gutenberg. Each individual letter form and punctuation mark is cast in alloy; these are arranged by hand, with metal and wood spacing material, to compose the page (in reverse and relief), which is then inked up and printed from. Typesetting my book appealed to me because it was the greatest extreme I could go to in its making—short of writing the manuscript by hand! Call me a control freak, but I wanted my creative autonomy to extend to every stroke and blank space on every single page.

In my Internet search I finally fixated on The Melbourne Museum of Printing website. I liked it because it was ‘old school’. It lacked the slick appeal of the ‘boutique’ studio websites; but the crowded, clashing text was the sole voice offering lessons in setting type by hand. The prices were reasonable. The photos weren’t of hip coasters, posters and business cards; they showed people printing from pages of actual type. This was the print studio I’d been looking for. If you’d like to read about my introduction to printing at MMOP, it’s been covered in former blogs.

Even back in 2016 when I first entered the museum, located in a cavernous double-storied warehouse in West Footscray, it was obvious that the establishment was in trouble. Apart from the museum director, Michael—and a few volunteers—there was no one there, and there never was. Entry was by appointment only. Its frontage was not even advertised with a sandwich board! A shortage in the staff required to enable general public admission and regular education programs had inhibited its capacity to support itself. One fundraising campaign back in 2009 had already bailed the museum out of its financial trouble. Since then, Michael had sought government and philanthropic support, but to no avail. By the time I arrived on the scene, the museum’s lease on the property was in arrears again—by the tens of thousands. 


The collection itself was boggling. Michael had amassed it himself over 40 years, beginning when the printing industry was transferring its processes to digital, thereby rendering much of its equipment obsolete. While printing businesses were auctioning whole workshops off dirt-cheap or throwing tools and equipment out at the tip, Michael was buying and collecting everything on offer and putting it into storage, at considerable cost to himself. The warehouse in West Footscay was the final resting place for this trove.

Michael with some of the equipment at the museum (Photo by Jason South from The Age, March 29th, 2018)
Michael with some of the equipment at the museum (Photo by Jason South from The Age, March 29th, 2018)

In February of 2018, five months after I’d moved on from the museum to another print studio, Michael’s landlord locked him out of the building. By November 2019 an auctioning company had been commissioned to sell the entire collection off.


Dr. Caren Florance is a writer, academic and artist who has worked and taught for many years in letterpress. She has also researched the contemporary scene. In her 2015 article ‘The Changing Face of Contemporary Letterpress in Australia’, she says:


The Melbourne Museum of Printing has had periods of access to the public, but this has been inconsistent. The latter is unfortunate, as the extensive collection has a lot of potential in terms of training up a new generation of printers and designers; ironically the extent of the collection may have contributed to the dearth of a current generation of printers in the region by making much equipment unavailable for sale or for access.

(Florance, Caren. The LaTrobe Journal, vol 95, March 2015. p. 74).


This was the general feeling among letterpress printers I had spoken to in the region about the museum: equipment was scarce and MMOP management wasn’t helping by holding onto a collection that was estimated to amount to ‘between 30 to 70 semi-trailer loads’.

The MMOP showroom
The MMOP showroom

For my own part—and from a position of hindsight—I feel ambivalent about the museum’s former role in the contemporary letterpress scene. It is true that there were obstacles for me in accessing its studio. The museum’s policy would not allow its customers—or even its volunteers—to retain a key; and so, I had to wait for the door to be opened for me. There were days I could not start printing until 3pm—a significant inconvenience for someone driving 118 kilometers to undertake a 12-hour print run! And although there were volunteers among the museum’s team with a working background in printing, for reasons unknown to me they were not commissioned to help in the studio, even as I ran up against technical problems that left me at a loss. I asked whether I could buy some equipment that was surplus to the studio’s needs; this was refused. I know I was not the first burgeoning printer to encounter these kinds of issues.

MMOP print studio
MMOP print studio

However, I cannot deny that it was the museum that set me on the letterpress path and provided a sure start to my project. There are few studios set up to facilitate book printing. The museum was and, when my time in its studio ended, I was generously allowed to continue using the type, furniture and chases that I had sourced there. It was Michael who helped me to impose my first pages and to lock them up soundly. He taught me the fundamentals and was generous with his knowledge. When I struck problems, he was beside me, often past midnight, dedicating many hours to troubleshooting. I know he always cared about my project and is proud that it had started out at the museum.


All of this is a prelude to my account of The Melbourne Museum of Printing auction. I wish to show, not only that this was an historical event—but one accompanied by many mixed emotions. 

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